In June 1981, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published its first alerts about the emergence of the HIV virus. Within a month, the New York Times published “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” which we know in retrospect as the Gray Lady’s first column on the virus. The epidemic had begun and it forever transformed queer politics, mostly in a detrimental sense.
As civilization has traversed the catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months, it has been impossible for me to ignore the ghoulish resemblance of the two public health debacles. Both were catalyzed by a highly-contagious virus that was misunderstood and subjected to bigoted parody by the far right, with unnecessarily-high mortality rates as a result. Both have an undeniably racialized dimension. Both emerged during Republican presidencies that had strip-mining the federal public health infrastructure as a campaign platform plank. And low-cost prophylactic measures have been rejected by both cohorts that are susceptible to infection, with deadly results in both instances. Hell, Anthony Fauci was even a target of scorn and hatred in both epidemics, something partially due to his nebbish and utterly milquetoast response to each respective government.
We have never truly learned any of the lessons from HIV-AIDS and the blame lies with both parties in Washington, the federal agencies responsible for organizing a response to epidemics, the white queer community, and the wider public. Here’s some of those lessons that will continue to be ignored:
1-Anthony Fauci is a coward who cannot be trusted.
When people began dying of HIV-AIDS, the Reagan administration was newly-installed thanks to a coalition including homophobic, racist Evangelicals that had partnered with the most revaunchist, anti-government sector of the business elite. That same coalition helped elect Donald Trump 35 years later. Both administrations sought to rip the welfare state to shreds and one of their first targets was public health agencies that support the most vulnerable.
In the face of austerity-inclined policymakers seeking to eradicate every government intervention in public welfare, Dr. Anthony Fauci merely farted. The man is a banal liberal technocrat whose politics, demeanor, and lack of spine are wildly underwhelming in response to the proportions of both epidemics.
In a June 1988 column for The San Francisco Examiner, the prophetic Larry Kramer wrote “Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers. Your present inaction is causing today’s increase in HIV infection outside of the Queer community.”
Less than 35 years later, just over a month after Kramer died, Mike Davis, whose scholarship had foreseen the possibility of a COVID-style pandemic over the prior two decades, wrote “He has accomplished great things in the past, but his hubris now makes him an accomplice of a dangerous and criminal regime… If he has been fact-checker to Trump’s ignorance and lies, he has paid for his place at the microphone by repeatedly acting as an apologist for the criminally negligent chaos that constitutes the administration’s response to Covid-19.”
“Fauci had a lot of success being, as he put it, non-political and non-ideological,” he said in a follow-up podcast interview with The Nation. “He’s tried to use the same method in the Trump administration. My argument is that, maybe in the first month or two [of the pandemic], there was some hope of using this kind of ‘President-whispering,’ gentle persuasion, to achieve some of the emergency goals at hand in terms of testing and the implementation of social distancing and closures. But after that point, after end end of March , yes, he was telling us the truth. But he wasn’t protesting or even highlighting the most disastrous and criminal decisions of the Trump administration.”
Fauci embodies the utter uselessness of liberal politics in the face of the austerity agenda and, with both HIV-AIDS and COVID-19, the results have been deadly. This is itself a kind of negligence that aids and abets crimes against humanity. Liberals that get a rise out of political theater like verbal sparring with Rand Paul give him a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card.
2-These epidemics breed healthcare apartheid
In the mid-1990s, as the cocktail of antiretroviral drugs for HIV-AIDS was rolled out rapidly, the virus was downgraded from a certain death sentence to an inconvenient chronic health diagnosis. Following this development you could live with HIV for years, case and point how Larry Kramer died over three decades after his diagnosis. These days, privileged queers with good health insurance can take a medication, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), that functions like a quasi-vaccine against the HIV virus. Immigrants, impoverished Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, and other marginalized groups still have high contraction rates. Meanwhile, the Global South has been ravaged by the virus, especially impoverished heterosexual women who were unwittingly infected by male partners with bad sexual education. Drug companies hold their populations hostage and use patients in human experimentation trials that would be illegal in Northern states.
In early 2021, the multiple COVID-19 vaccines have been rolled out in the Global North. The Biden administration will use its success of inoculation as part of the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential campaign. The aforementioned marginalized communities have fared somewhat better, but they are still far from the benchmarks that their white contemporaries have reached. Meanwhile, the Global South is faring far worse, with Brazil and India facing full-scale humanitarian catastrophes caused by their own nightmarish austerity regimes. Most disgustingly, like with HIV antiretrovirals and PrEP, the government has collaborated with drug companies to prioritize profit above saving lives. Drug access remains a skin color-coded affair. With the forthcoming ubiquity of showing a proof-of-vaccination card in order to gain admission to a business, state, or country, it is not hard to imagine such document demonstrations replicating the old South African passbook system rather quickly.
3-Those who are most vulnerable are resisting prevention of virus contraction
In the early 1980s, queers refused to use condoms, cut back on promiscuity, or close “super-spreader” venues like bathhouses, a deadly triad of behaviors. Their identity had been defined since the 1969 Stonewall uprising by America’s strange brand of libertarian politics, with a reified notion of personal sovereignty, sexual adventurism, and individualism precluding notions of collective preservation or self-defense. Since the advent of antiretrovirals and PrEP, susceptible people in the queer community have begun to treat HIV contraction as if it were equivalent to diabetes or gingivitis. HIV contraction rates are skyrocketing, not to mention new health calamities like the scourge of crystal meth.
When COVID-19 struck, the hard right mobilized their constituents to oppose mask mandates, social distancing, and business closures. Make no mistake, there is a certain malice in their behavior that makes them far less innocent than HIV-AIDS patients. These people have spent the past 50 years opposing even the mildest kinds of liberal collective welfare policies, oftentimes in the name of a white nationalist socio-political theology with fascistic undertones.
Yet in each case, the undeniable facts are the dire repercussions for everyone else in society. Civically-minded queers, unaware they had contracted HIV, inadvertently exposed untold numbers of people to the virus via blood donation. Kids like Ryan White and heterosexuals like Isaac Asimov both died as a result. Though there certainly is a condescending liberal gratification in seeing Trumpkins committing what amounts to ritualistic mass suicide, it is a misplaced sadism that needs to be avoided. HIV-AIDS has mutated into more malignant viral strains that are resistant to drugs. COVID-19 has begun to likewise develop frightening mutations and variable strains that may not be blocked by vaccines. These things happen regardless of the patient’s politics or opinions.
4-Liberals will abandon the fight against the virus at our collective peril
After the retroviral cocktail began being prescribed to HIV-AIDS patients in the mid-1990s, middle class whites folded up their tents and joined the Democratic Party en masse. Except for outlier radicals like Larry Kramer, people decided it was time to leave the streets and get brunch. Some of the most grotesque instances of this assimilation politics includes pinkwashing Zionism, stereotyping minority communities for homophobia while simultaneously gentrifying their neighborhoods, and, perhaps most bizarrely, embracing the Libertarian Party. By embracing liberalism and absconding their earlier radical slogans like “Healthcare is a Right!,” the HIV-AIDS epidemic has continued its deadly rampage.
We are facing similar circumstances with COVID. For liberals, COVID is “over” and life is returning to normal. This ignorant bliss almost certainly will be punctured very quickly. Very few seem cognizant of last month’s news that nine members of the New York Yankees contracted the virus after being inoculated with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. And, while the news coverage has been eager to point out the symptoms have been mild, I cannot help but wonder if just a little bit of that has to do with having a health insurance plan with one of the richest baseball clubs on the planet…
While it is certainly admirable that President Biden gave up on his militant defense of vaccine patent rights, this is a far cry from revoking such intellectual protections in toto and allowing for the open-source publication of these life-saving chemistry formulations. In our internet age, we have seen the development of online anarchist communities that discovered how to reverse-engineer and then produce life-saving medications for pennies. Imagine the possibilities if countries with impoverished economies were given the opportunity to do similar things without the threat of being penalized by crushing economic sanctions. Where is a WikiLeaks-style info dump from an anonymous Big Pharma executive or lab tech? When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, and such thoughts were called Communism. Liberals will say what we are seeing from Biden is “good enough” at the peril of our species. A global pandemic creates the need for a global response rejecting profits.